Biographia Literaria Project

The Biographia Project

The two decades of reading life subsequent to my disinternment from AMERICAN PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL were shaped first, through my twenties, with devouring the Western literary canon and then discovering, in my thirties, that I had neglected HISTORY and all practical learning. I therefore changed tack and sailed a decade in different waters, with Carlyle, Burnham, Fisher & Froude as shipmates. The new course has been revolutionary. If the mind is an Aeolian harp, as the Romantics claimed, fastened to the mast, the winds which once blew straight on and drew a youthful tune–a Song of Innocence–turned a darker hue and deeper timbre. There are gales, at times, that smash the railings and unhinge every baroque flourish not properly nailed down; but in the end the deck is clear and the craft sails truer…

This has been a tour through HMS Extended Metaphor.

In both epochs of The Book (twenties LIT, thirties HIST) the theme emerges: books were better a hundred years ago. Indeed they were better until the latest strain of liberalism gripped our institutions and institutionalized them with cartelized speech crimes. Likewise there is no longer any music in our writing: prosody has been sent packing by God knows what…writing for the eye, the primacy of the printed word (while reading aloud in sitting rooms and preaching have disappeared from private and public life), the rise of entertainments meant also as exports to second language learners, &c. Pray don’t bother looking for me to explain much further here, nor inflame the narrow gauge of your wrists typing out your disagreeableness in the Blessed Virgin Soil of my Comments Section. It is a plain fact that The Language is in occultation.

Having thus observed and tersely held forth on the State of Affairs in the World and the World of Books, I have, in the meanest of whiles, decided that, in keeping with the traditions of my forefathers, I should condescend to turn 40 next month. The decision was not taken lightly and without due consideration; nor was the opportunity to make it a conclusion foregone: my life has been peopled with dangerous women, and Egyptians. But 5 years older and a deal stupider than Montaigne, and without having retired, I have retired from interest in most affairs of the world that are not aesthetic and, in view of all this, have decided to leave out the way I came: through appreciating, or perhaps drowning in, Good Literature.

I’m going to start getting through the Canon again, from stem to Sterne, from Pliny the Elder to Ernst the Jünger, leaving it to others to trade in post-1945 or so. I’m sure I’ll find occasion to break this rule. For instance: when I mention it was William H. Gass who put me onto my idea and the whole reason for this post.

“I am not the only reader who considers the Biographia the greatest work of literary criticism ever—even if Coleridge plagiarizes from the German idealists. I was lucky enough to study it under the gentle and wise guidance of Professor M. H. Abrams. The seminar was built on one directive: we would not only read the Biographia but would (by sharing and parceling out the labor) read every book it quotes from, mentions, or alludes to. The result was, in miniature, a university education. In researching my papers for the course, I also learned never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”

WRITE SO AS TO BECOME PRIMARY, MR. GASS? I’m quite beyond the AGE, Mr. Gass. I won’t even be a footnote to a footnote, Mr. Gass! But here, there’s time still! There’s time left on this Earth for me, perhaps another 40 years of mental runway, if the burn rate on my faculties isn’t too great, I could still at least read all the books in the Biographia, couldn’t I? Other men wish to synthesize all of human experience, or sublimate the European Mind to their own grand selves, to sit amok time and space and quiver with a million men below them, a brain with an extended nervous system acting with all the connections of a Napoleon, or Grander Still! But I, Mr. Gass, I would be happy at this point merely to contain within myself One University English Course @ Cornell, circa 1947!

Well, that’s precisely what I will do. This is going to be an Orgy of the Mind. And, as Mr. Gass reminds us, “nowhere do we need order more than at an orgy.”

Let us state our goal, then, again in the words of Billy G:

Not only read the Biographia but…read every book it quotes from, mentions, or alludes to.

We need rules!

  1. We (I) read the Biographia from beginning to end.
  2. Every time a work is mentioned in it, reading of the Biographia is paused until that work is read completely and studied to satisfaction.
  3. Every work will be read no matter how tangential to the text or casually mentioned: even those the Biographia disparages.
  4. When the mentioned work is read, the Biographia will be resumed from the last position.
  5. As one does not get credit in a marathon for having run a 5k before, credit is not given for having read a work before. If the Biographia mentions it, it must be reread according to its place in the text.
  6. The only works that can be skipped are those that are not in English translation. I do not think this is likely.
Biographia Literaria

How long might this take? Probably longer than we want, but what an object of ambition! Will I make it to the end? Who can say! The Great Bird of the Galaxy might take me first. I may lose interest and cease writing: I’m feckless! On the other hand I have run an ultramarathon before. I wasn’t in shape for it and it took me 10 hours, but I did get through it. I’m not in shape for this, either, but have taken the same psychological approach to this problem as I did with the ultra: I haven’t bothered to ask how long it will take.

I’ll write here as well, but if you’re on Urbit, do come watch this unfold:


Next time: Page the First.